Break out the champagne and streamers—it’s World Hepatitis Day! Okay, so it might not sound like much of party, but if you are one of the millions of people with viral Hepatitis there is no reason to be a wallflower.
Over 500 million people around the world are infected with either Hepatitis B or C, the two most common forms of chronic viral Hepatitis. Both Hepatitis B and C are viruses that can cause chronic inflammation in the liver. Over the course of years this can lead to scarring in the liver and ultimately cirrhosis—severe scarring and fibrosis of the liver where liver function can be comprised. Additionally, these chronic viruses, particularly Hepatitis B, can increase the risk of developing a primary cancer of the liver called hepatocellular cancer. The liver, unlike, say, the appendix, is a vital organ that—among other functions—stores and helps process nutrients, detoxifies and filters blood, and produces blood coagulants. In short, the liver is vital to life and a failing liver absent a liver transplant means trouble.
The best first step to combating these viruses is awareness. It is important to know the risk factors for these viruses and get tested if you are at risk. Hepatitis B and C differ somewhat in risk factors and transmission. With an estimated 350 million people worldwide who are carriers (most commonly in Asia and Africa), chronic Hepatitis B is the most common chronic virus of the liver. It is most often transmitted by birth or through blood-borne or sexual contact. Hepatitis B is not transmitted through casual contact such as sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses, kissing, hugging, coughing, sneezing, or breastfeeding. Like Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C also is not transmitted through casual contact. The most common risk factors for transmission of Hepatitis C are: intravenous drug use, blood transfusions before 1992, and healthcare exposure such as dialysis.
Who should be screened for Hepatitis B or C? The CDC maintains specific guidelines, which you or your primary care physician could refer to if in doubt.
The silver lining in the large quantity of people infected with Hepatitis B and C is that there is strength in numbers. Promising research is advancing the treatment of chronic Hepatitis B and C on a regular basis. Current treatments are effective in suppressing the Hepatitis B virus and reducing the risk of developing cirrhosis or hepatocellular cancer. Treatments for Hepatitis C can be more arduous, but are often successful in completely eradicating the virus. Not all people who have chronic Hepatitis B or C require treatment, but it is typically helpful to consult a hepatologist or gastroenterologist to see whether treatment would be helpful.
The bottom line is that current therapies for Hepatitis B and C are good—and even better therapies just on the horizon. For the millions of people living with chronic Hepatitis, this is truly something to celebrate.